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Celebrating action for biodiversity: Q&A with a pioneering young conservationist

Twenty-seven-year-old Paul Zaake is co-founder and executive director at Rakai Environmental Conservation Programme (RECO), a not-for-profit organization based in Uganda’s southern Rakai region, and member of the Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD) network.

To mark International Day for Biological Diversity, celebrating 25 years of action for biodiversity today, we asked him why biodiversity is important - and how youth can contribute.

Q: What inspired you to become involved in protecting biodiversity?

My inspiration comes from my grandparents. I remember when I visited as a child, my grandma would give me a whole range of fruits and vegetables from the garden. The only moments I didn’t enjoy were the bitter herbs she would give us to drink when we were sick! We grew up with hobbies like harvesting honey, fishing, eating ants and termites, climbing trees for fruits. It was normal to go and harvest mangos or jackfruits from the communal gardens in the community.

Each fruit or crop had a distinct importance that together is important for a resilient home. But I have witnessed a wave of persistent environmental degradation in the villages of Rakai region, accompanied by serious loss of biodiversity. This has affected the livelihoods of local people who largely depend upon natural resources for their survival.

Q: What is the initiative, and how does it work?

I realized individual action is good, however, when we come together, we can do more. We are committed to protecting and conserving natural resources for future generations. We cover a range of interests, from sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation, to clean and safe water and sanitation. This year we are implementing the Rakai Forest Landscape Restoration project to plant 30,000 indigenous tree species, responding to the acute scarcity of planting materials for indigenous tree species.

We are teaching children about the importance of biodiversity and environmental conservation. We have a fruits value addition initiative making solar dried fruits, packaging and processing and marketing them for local markets and future export.

Q: Why is it important for us to protect biodiversity?

My vision is that communities should be free of hunger and there should be no environmental degradation. The benefits of protecting whole ecosystems spread far and wide, enabling us to enjoy clean water from natural forests and much more. When we protect our biodiversity, we get better crop yields, increased productivity from livestock pastures and healthier soil.

We must give the next generations a chance to enjoy these benefits. My vision is to enhance people’s confidence and pride in our 668 villages; to feel proud of where they live they become part of a movement and collaborate on practical solutions.

Q: What challenges have you encountered along the way and how have you overcome them?

One constraint we face is that the global market has a significant influence on what is in demand locally. When indigenous species are not in demand, they become less of a priority among farmers. We are reaching out to schools to influence a behavioral change and encourage young people to appreciate diverse foods. The second challenge is poverty. When a person is poor, he or she will exploit any available resource to survive. We promote entrepreneurship in communities because when someone has a better livelihood, they will protect natural resources.

Finally, we must start off with the few resources we have at our disposal. Plant one seed from the avocado you have eaten. Partners with similar visions will join. I am proud of the individuals, institutions and partners I have worked with.

Q: What advice would you give to others wanting to protect biodiversity for the 25 years ahead and how would you inspire other young people to get involved? 

Identify your niche in protecting diversity and then use those networks. If you are researcher protect biodiversity by doing research that will enhance biodiversity protection. If you are a policy-maker, make policies that promote biodiversity. If you are an artist, develop art products that promote biodiversity.

Also, do not wait, start now. Be an example to others. If all young people today are conscious about protecting biodiversity, then in another 25 years, we will have a “biodiversity-smart” generation.

Find the original blog post and for more stories that inspire at the Young Champions of the Earth website.